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Heather Abbott shares story with CCRI's
physical therapist assistant grads

June 6, 2014

Heather Abbott talks about her experiences following the amputation of her leg following the Boston Marathon bombing before a crowd of 22 Physical Therapist Assistant graduates and their families on May 29. Heather Abbott talks about her experiences following the amputation of her leg as a result of the Boston Marathon bombing before a crowd of 22 Physical Therapist Assistant graduates and their families on May 29. View more photos from the event.

Heather Abbott of Newport was on the way to meet friends at a restaurant near the Boston Marathon finish line last year when the first bomb struck. Twelve seconds later, the second bomb's blast blew her through the entrance of the restaurant. After the smoke cleared, Abbott found herself sorting through the complicated rubble of her new reality: Three separate surgeries to save her leg had failed, and doctors agreed that the only course of action was to amputate her left leg below the knee.

"My doctors said it was the best chance I'd have to resume the active, independent life that I was used to. One week after the bombing, I was forced to discover a new normal," she said.

It was then that Abbott recognized the first of three things she said helped her get through an unbelievably trying time and helped her go from lying in a hospital bed a little more than a year ago to standing on stage at the Community College of Rhode Island's Newport County Campus, speaking to the 22 graduating Physical Therapist Assistant program students at their pinning ceremony on May 29.

"You have to have the ability to recognize and accept what can't be changed," she said. "I'd be lying if I told you I didn't lie awake many nights wondering 'what if' or 'why me.' But what had happened had happened, and there was nothing I could do to change it. I was never going to get my leg back, but I was determined to get my life back."

That determination, coupled with the help she received from friends, strangers and other amputees who visited her in the hospital, and the dedication of her physical and occupational therapists, whom she now considers close friends, was what started to propel her out of bed and on with her new life.

She spoke of some of the ways her physical and occupational therapists made a difference in her recovery, tailoring her therapy to her unique concerns, and helping her to put a smile back on her face as she turned toward a future where life was still possible.

After she was out of the hospital and her story reached millions across the nation, she found that people were reaching out to her, for support. The third factor that helped her overcome the unexpected trauma was recognizing the chance to pay it forward, speaking to amputees "to show them the ropes" and standing in front of health professionals to talk to them about how their actions can make a difference.

She encouraged the PTA graduates to remember the story of her physical therapists. "Keep in mind the ability you have to influence someone's recovery through your careers," she said before receiving a standing ovation from the audience.

President Ray Di Pasquale congratulated the PTA graduates on fulfilling their dreams and taking steps to change not only their lives, but the lives of others like Abbott, whom he called "inspirational."

"To see what your patients can achieve is such an important part of what you're going to be doing," added Rehabilitative Health Department Chair and PTA Program Director Kimberly Crealey Rouillier.

Melissa KulpaNewly minted graduate Melissa T. Kulpa of Newport, who wore a green cord around her neck signifying that she was graduating with honors, said that she began by pursuing a bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of Rhode Island, but her work as a physical therapy aide made her think twice about her future, and she enrolled in the PTA program here.

"I thought this would be a better path for me. I just really enjoyed being able to help people and see the progress they can make and see what a difference I can make in their lives because it's tough for them when they come to us in pain. And seeing them leave with a smile on their face put a smile on my face," she said. "Words can't even explain how excited I am."

Eric C. "Charlie" Dyson, who graduated with highest honors and was awarded with one of the night's two Clinical Excellence Awards (the other went to classmate Joseph M. Wojtas, who also graduated with highest honors), said he couldn't wait to get started on his new career path.

After graduating from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor's degree in biology, Dyson realized his interest in anatomy classes and how the muscles and joints in the body worked together meant he should pursue work as a physical therapist. He commuted from Waterford, Connecticut, to attend the program for the last two years.

"My classmates and my teachers are what I've enjoyed most. The time I spent here in class was really great; I learned a lot from everyone. I'm glad I'm done and I'm looking forward to taking my certification test in July," he said.

Emily K. Livingston also earned a special recognition as she was presented with the Academic Excellence Award, for having the highest scores in all PTA courses.

After the students accepted their pins and   Erin Borden and Jennifer McGuiggan, PTA class co-presidents.certificates, students  recapped some of the class's watershed moments in their education as well as some good-natured ribbing aimed at one another and their teachers. They also looked back on some of the causes the graduates banded together to support, such as Toys for Tots and Access RI, and a fundraiser they held for a Occupational Therapy Assistant student who was battling, and ultimately would succumb, to cancer. After thanking some of the instructors on hand, as well as Laboratory Manager Toni Cimini, student Richard S. George joined the pair to present gifts to the teachers and staff, including a slide board – an instrument used in physical therapy – engraved with the names of the graduating class members.

In closing, Rouillier praised the all of the class members for their visible passion. "You need to have that passion to keep going," she said. "When you have that power of passion, you have the ability to motivate other people to follow you. So it's very important to take that wonderful gift that you all have, and put it to good use in the field of physical therapy. Never lose that passion to be the best."

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Last Updated: 8/25/16